On Sunday night I thought I saw history made in Leamington Spa. Procol Harum played in Britain to an almost-full house which greeted them appreciatively, and at times almost rapturously. Forty years ago the band could have expected no less. This was a band that captured the popular muse like no other. In a world that was just becoming global, before the term was even invented, a group of young musicians reached the zenith of their popular reception at an unprecedented rate; the hallmark of modernism. But unlike most things modern, they continued to surprise, delight, develop, and produce work of increasing quality which any classical composer could envy. As one of the starkest milestones of popular culture they defied the conventional wisdoms; they endured and grew a prestigious musical tradition in the wake of popular success.
In these days of branding and marketing and globalism, they not only invented the peculiar form of popular worldwide hit, they became a cultural phenomenon which has been marked in such disparate places as the Seattle Museum of popular music, Prime Ministerial remarks at question time, British jurisprudence, American television series, and popular discourse. Their good fortune included having some of the finest musicians in the world interpreting their music, while generally avoiding the most egregious form of flattery - the touring clones.
So what did we see on Sunday night? In my view we saw the embodiment of the best traditions of classical music; the passing down of wonderful music seasoned by audiences and musicians alike, performed by some of its finest exponents. I wondered if we should ever see its like again. Here was the band 'taking turns in trying to pass it on'. If the name of the band ever meant anything, it has always embodied – in my view at least – going beyond the things that had gone before. Like doppelgängers, the muses of Reid, Fisher, Copping, Wilson, Trower, Grabham, Ball et al (and probably Stevens, Cordell, Visconti and Thomas as well) all skipped softly across the stage. But tradition is not the same as purity, and memory is not the same as commemoration. Procol Harum has always been beyond these things.
To watch the extraordinary talent and enthusiasm which Geoff Whitehorn has brought to the band, the detail and precision which Matt Pegg delivers faultlessly from song to song, and the craft with which Josh Phillips refuses to simply clone, is a breathtaking experience. Newcomer Geoff Dunn, who has perhaps the hardest chair of tradition to fill in this lofty ensemble, produces performance after performance which would make BJ smile. Gary Brooker refuses to allow the wear and tear of life to interrupt his muse.
But this was extraordinary also from another perspective. Here was the best (and most confounding) exemplar of 'popular music' I have ever known. But for the efforts of a smallish core of admirers, who grasped all the opportunities of global technology, and coalesced in 1997 the still-glowing embers of international ardour for this music, we might never have heard new material produced and the opportunities to witness such welcome talent so easily. There are so many implicated actors one could name who each played their part in ensuring that this music was never too far away, but Roland and Jens deserve special mention, as their contribution is so rarely recognised and acknowledged.
So in defiance of the modernist rules of ephemera, the canons of record company policy, the finest traditions of Cool Britannia, and the slings and arrows of age, Procol Harum produced a mighty triumph, which may even have surprised them as they left the stage on Sunday night. It was a privilege and a pleasure to be there, almost surreal and certainly transcendental. If we owe them (and the future) nothing else, I suspect we must continue to anoint keepers of the flame, and nurture the emerging bearers of the wonderful Procol traditions, as Geoff, Josh, Matt, and Geoff are already doing.
Popular music owes Procol Harum the greatest debt of all; without them, I suspect we might have been left simply with the poverty of the multi-track, sequencer-based, Antares-tuned, X-factor, stadium cock-rock, rockstar platform, sampling-modelling simulacra.
Those who attended the concert may also agree.